Monday, January 7

Posted by Laurel Garver on Monday, January 07, 2013 8 comments

Many of you are revising NaNo projects and have discovered that your eagerness to hit word counts led you to create a whole lot of bloated prose. Some of the problem might be tangents, some of it letting characters babble. I'll address these issues in future posts.

Today, I'd like to address some common, sentence-level causes of wordiness. Many of these things are not grammatically incorrect and some may have a place in your writing. Just keep in mind that wordy constructions usually reduce clarity and feel overwritten. Trimming and revising wordy sentences will improve flow and pacing.

Beware of these “nouned verbs,” words created by adding suffixes to verbs, such as completion, deliverance, and agreement. They can sound ponderous and clunky. They’re also often a sign of passive writing, in which the subject is buried, typically within a prepositional phrase.

To repair the problem, identify who’s acting, make him the subject and convert the nominal to its verb form.

Whenever possible, replace nominal constructions like “be appreciative of” with the simple verb, in this case “appreciate.”

Strict enforcement of the speed limit by the police will cause a reduction in traffic fatalities.
Revised: Officers strictly enforcing the speed limit will reduce traffic fatalities.

Olivia’s friends are supportive of her in every way.
Revised: Olivia’s friends support her in every way.

“Expletives,” meant in the grammatical sense of “explaining,” use “there” or “it” with a form of “to be” and frequently add unnecessary words. Notice that expletives like to pair with nominals.

To repair the problem, move the subject to the fore and let it act with a strong verb. At times, adverbs can combat the problem, too. (Surprise! Adverbs are not always the enemy. Making long, contorted sentences to avoid them does not truly strengthen your work, does it?)

There were fifty people in attendance at the meeting.
Revised: Fifty people attended the meeting.

There is a light breeze that is shivering among the branches.
Revised: A light breeze shivers among the branches.
It is apparent that the team members can’t agree.
Revised: Apparently, the team can’t agree.

Dependent clauses
Beware of unnecessary dependent clauses. You can usually eliminate them and they’re easy to find—search for frequent repetition of “who” and “that” followed by forms of “to be.”

Carrie recognized the dog who was chasing Leah.
Revised: Carrie recognized the dog chasing Leah.

Joe wants a medication that is prescribed by a physician.
Revised: Joe wants a medication prescribed by a physician.
Alternate: Joe wants a prescription medication.

Anyone who is willing to work hard will succeed in this class.
Revised: Anyone willing to work hard will succeed in this class.

Other perpetrators
A few other wordy constructions to watch for:

Using “to be” with “going to” rather than “will”
I am going to think about it.
Revised: I’ll think about it.

Paul is never going to buy that idea.
Revised: Paul will never buy that idea.
Alternate: Paul won’t ever buy that idea.

Using “would like to” instead of “want” 

Casey would like to wear matching outfits.
Revised: Casey wants to wear matching outfits.

Adding unnecessary descriptions when meaning is clear from context

Gilbert put his shoes on his feet.
Revised: Gilbert put on his shoes.

If you can think of others, please drop a note in the comments.

Which of these areas trips you up? Any other helpful hints to add?


  1. thanks for this post. I'm in the process of editing and can always learn new things to look for.

  2. I saved this so I could read it later.


    1. Hope this proves helpful when the time is right. This kind of sentence-level work comes after the big picture fixes.

  3. How I love revisions, let me count the ways...

    1. I think this kind of sentence-level work is what separates the pros from the amateurs.

  4. Great tips for weeding out the stuff that clogs up the reading.

    1. Thanks! Some kinds of wordiness are subtle, yet simple to fix.